Friday, October 24, 2014

Non-Sectarian Chapel? Seeing is Believing


This week I had my first chapel experience at my son’s new school. It was birthday chapel where boys (it’s an all-boys school) with October birthdays were recognized. My Jewish and Muslim friends told me to expect a non-sectarian service, but I was skeptical.

One reason for my skepticism was that we lived in Dallas, the most Bible-thumping city in Texas according to a 2014 study by the American Bible Society. Christianity was practically a state religion, and it wasn’t hard to find Jesus in public life. He was discussed in Gymboree classes; served through dance schools, baseball clinics, and talent agencies, and talked about in boardrooms and public school lunchrooms. It was hard to believe that a school named for a Christian saint would have a non-denominational service.

The other reason I questioned the non-sectarian nature of the chapel was that in pictures, it appeared very Christian–candles, altar boys in robes, an organ, and wooden pews. It reminded me of Our Lady of the Lake church in my New Jersey hometown. How could something that seemed so Christian be ecumenical?

This was how: The school was created in 1950, not by the church, but through the merger of two schools–one secular and one Episcopal. As in any merger, as the two organizations worked to become one, compromises were made.

One compromise was chapel. It was decided that the new institution would have a non-sectarian spiritual component that honored all faiths, but the chaplain would always be an Episcopal priest. 

The chapel compromise sounded very peace-love-and-happiness-ish, but I still needed to see how it worked in practice. After experiencing it, I realized that my friends were right. The spiritual aspect of the school was as advertised: non-denominational and designed to provide moral direction through the integration of teachings from a variety of faiths.

The reading at the service was from the Tipitaka, the sacred book of Buddhism. The homily delivered by the priest included a brief overview of Buddhist beliefs–decrease suffering, increase happiness–and a story about Siddhartha, the prince that became the Buddha. Rather than succeed his father as king Siddhartha chose to work to alleviate suffering and make the world a better, happier place.

Sounded like Siddhartha knew something about the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam; repairing the world. The priest then discussed Buddhism’s focus on ethical speech, action and living. As he talked about each of these principles, I was reminded that Judaism requires the same things from Jews.

Regardless of the faith, the story was reinforcing the same moral doctrines my son learned at home and in our synagogue, and heard about from his Jewish and non-Jewish family. I was thankful for the assistance in driving home these messages.  

Following the story, we sang a few songs about appreciating the beauty of all of God’s creations while the birthday boys and their parents were honored. The hymns used the words"God" and "Lord," but were otherwise religiously generic. The most Judeo-Christian aspect of the service was a blessing in recognition of the parents in attendance. The priest offered the prayer in the name of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and Mary.

After a brief announcement, the service ended. The priest said, “Chapel is over.” There was no closing hymn or parting words of wisdom. I gave my son a kiss and said goodbye. He left for his next class and I headed towards the parking lot.

As I walked to my car, rather than feeling concerned about the religious component of the school’s curriculum, I was delighted. My son was learning about other faiths in a way that taught him to recognize the values shared by many religions. Important tenets of Judaism such as asking questions and living a life of responsibility were being reinforced through Jewish and non-Jewish stories.

As I drove home, I thought about how my son would be a more enlightened and tolerant person because of this spiritual education. I thought about this in the context of the actions being perpetrated today around the globe in the name of God. And I saw that the non-sectarian chapel was good.